Walk with Purpose

By Nelli Kim

What does it mean to walk with purpose? It was a question I often wondered to myself and spent most of my adulthood seeking the answer to. I grew up feeling I was not particularly special or talented. I had a lovely, albeit uneventful, childhood growing up in Hawaii as one of four children of Korean immigrants. My parents were faithful Christians, and I grew up in the church, although my faith was not personal to me. More of a Sunday ritual we participated in together as a family.

I remember writing college application essays, at a loss to answer the types of questions that colleges love asking: Describe something significant that happened to you and how it changed your life? What do you want to be when you grow up? How are you going to change the world? The truth was nothing interesting had happened in my life, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

And so I continued on, doing what the world told us to do. Work hard, study, achieve good grades, get into a good school, get a good job, get married and live happily ever after… achieve, achieve, achieve. Once I got to college, I stopped attending church regularly. My faith was still there, but it still wasn’t personal. I figured I had gotten enough church and God growing up, and I could believe in and appreciate Him in my heart without participating in “Religion.” It felt deliciously naughty to sleep in on Sunday mornings for the first time in my life.

After college I moved to New York to work in fashion and after many years and detours, eventually landed my dream job working at Bergdorf Goodman in the buying office. I found myself completely merging my identity with how well I did at work. “I work in fashion” meant I was interesting and worthy. And even better, being recognized for my work ethic and business achievements made me feel even more special. It was a vicious cycle of prioritizing work over everything in my life because of the positive feedback loop.

I had married my boyfriend of 7 years, but within a year, we separated. I found myself brought to my knees, wondering how I had gotten everything so wrong. I found myself examining every aspect of my life. It turned out I was wrong about all the things I thought were important and true. Work wasn’t the most important thing in my life. In fact, marriage isn’t the sort of thing you can just “set it and forget it.” I yearned for TRUTH and knew that I couldn’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

God is always speaking to us in whispers, intuition, in our dreams, and even through other people. I realized I had tuned out everything worth listening to in a dogged and focused pursuit of validation through my career. I started seeking wisdom and truth. I meditated. I binged Oprah. I read every self-help book. I started going to Redeemer regularly and listening to Dr. Keller’s sermons on the Gospel in Life podcast. I remember attending Redeemer and connecting to the truth behind the sermons. I would sit in the auditorium with tears streaming down my face. It was the first time I heard these sermons, and yet it was like a truth I had always known, but somehow forgotten.

I remember one sermon in particular that Dr. Keller preached about Joseph and his brothers, “The Saving of Many Lives” (November 17, 2013). The idea that my suffering could be used by God to bring about greater love and goodness was a transformative thought. We do not have omniscience nor are we able to see the future, but I started to believe that I was a part of a grand plan.

The idea that my suffering could be used by God to bring about greater love and goodness was a transformative thought. We do not have omniscience nor are we able to see the future, but I started to believe that I was a part of a grand plan.

For the first time in my life, the gospel and Christianity felt personal to me and I finally understood what everyone meant by the “good news.” I leaned into my faith. I joined a community group and volunteered on a whim for a Redeemer short-term missions trip to Mumbai working with women and children who had been rescued from sex trafficking. I picked the trip because it happened to coincide perfectly with when I could take time off at work. But it ended up being exactly the trip I was meant to go on and changed the trajectory of my life. I remember walking through the brothels praying for the women. I looked into their eyes and KNEW that the only thing different about us was luck. I could have been them and they could have been me had we been born into different families. God was showing me this for a reason.

I learned that most of the women in the brothels were not there by choice. Many of them ended up there from far-flung parts of India or even neighboring countries like Nepal or Bangladesh with promises of respectable work in the big city only to find themselves trafficked into prostitution. Other times women were kidnapped, and still others sold into prostitution by their own families out of economic desperation. They are prisoners until their “ransom” has been paid and then they are “free” to leave. But where can they go? With the stigma of prostitution, they cannot integrate back into society. And they can’t go home either, because it may be unsafe for them to do so. Or it could be because their families wouldn’t accept them if they knew what had happened to them. I met the innocent children of the women. Their beautiful smiles and shining souls showed me that the human spirit is resilient and created to be joyful. I came away from the trip with a thought. What if I’m meant to do something with my gifts in service of others? I wasn’t a doctor or social worker, so I doubted how that could happen, but it was a little seed planted.

I remember having a post-missions trip meeting with our trip leader, Christina Stanton. She asked me some meaningful questions: How has this trip impacted your life? Do you think God is calling you to do something? If so, what is it? Before I knew it, I found myself saying that maybe I’m supposed to use my experience in fashion to start a company built to give money back to charities. The NGOs we worked with in Mumbai like International Justice Mission were doing important and meaningful work, and it struck me that their central issue is no consistent revenue stream. What if I could build a business to provide consistent revenue to my favorite charities? Maybe even create our own non-profit to provide educational scholarships for the children we met?

I was stunned that the words even came out of my mouth. THAT was a wild dream, not one that I was meant to pursue, but it sounded fun for someone else. I suppose it was a God-sized dream. I immediately went back to the rhythms of life. But inside me something had shifted and I wasn’t the same. I just couldn’t get excited about picking out gorgeous $800 shoes for our wealthy 0.1% clientele. What had happened to me? 

I found myself thinking maybe it’s time for me to leave Bergdorf Goodman, a place I had cherished and thought I would never leave. I didn’t know what I was meant to do, but also knew I wasn’t going to find out if I stayed. Deep down I knew that if I was going to build a brand, I had to understand different aspects of product and market needs, including scale and price point. So I made the difficult and scary decision to trust God and be open to an uncharted adventure. So began a journey of working at different companies like Anthropologie and Caleres to prepare me for building my own company. I was determined that no matter what I built, it had to solve a meaningful problem in the world and not just create more “stuff.”

2016 was going to be my year. I had gone back to India at the end of the prior year, this time as a mission trip co-leader, and felt further confirmation that I was on the right path. Three of us from that trip would go on to found Embers International, serving the same population of women and children. I had landed on my “big idea,” which was radically comfortable and stylish shoes reimagined and engineered with an orthopedic surgeon. I had noticed a white space in the market for a brand that would modernize comfortable shoes, and realized I could make these shoes and build in a charitable component. I completed the business plan in August 2016. A week later I was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be Stage 3C/4 ovarian cancer with a 30% chance of long-term survival.

I was devastated. I had finally found my big idea, and thought I was pursuing the path God had laid out for me. Why suddenly was I being forced to pause? I began an 18-month journey of multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, hospital stays and recovery. Angels and prayer warriors sprung up all around me to pray for my healing and aid in my recovery, including family, friends, my Redeemer crew, my incredible medical team, and elders from church. Redeemer elder, Dr. Alex Chou, worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering where I was being treated, and visited me every day in the hospital while he was doing his rounds. All these friends and loved ones will never know how much their prayers, their visits, and their words of encouragement were my lifeline. I felt God’s presence surround me through community.

After returning to work I experienced chemo-related foot pain and could no longer wear most of my shoes without suffering severe foot cramps that woke me up in the middle of the night. Throughout this experience I never forgot about the shoe company idea. It had been on hold while I went through treatment and recovery. I had thought it was a good idea from a business perspective. But after cancer I realized the problem had become personal to me. It went from an abstract concept to a missional calling.

In 2019, I left my job and started working on what would eventually become RĒDEN. It felt for the first time like I was living in my purpose, walking with purpose—God’s purpose for my life. I could see the wayward threads of my past woven together to make a tapestry that only God could have designed.

I could see the wayward threads of my past woven together to make a tapestry that only God could have designed.

This year marks 5 years cancer-free and my oncologists declared me officially “cured.” While I wouldn’t have chosen to get cancer, I also recognize that my experiences made me acutely aware of foot pain and uniquely qualified to solve the problem. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose our response. I’m convinced that our experiences and adversity inform our purpose, and we can use all of these things in service of the greater good. That is why I chose the name RĒDEN, which stands for Restoration to Eden. My hope is that we will help restore people’s foot health with our shoes, and plant seeds into future generations through our donations. My greatest dream is that someday we’ll be able to train and hire the sex trafficking survivors at our factory in India to give them a new future. Now that is a God-sized dream and one only He can make happen. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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